LUMBERTON — Laughter flowed and a few tears were shed Sunday as members of Jill McCorkle’s creative writing class at Wesley Pines Retirement Community read their memoirs.
McCorkle has taught the group monthly for three years, and as members gave a reading on Sunday, they demonstrated they were good students.
“We have such a great time that we invited others to celebrate with us. I am so grateful to this group,” said McCorkle, a Lumberton native and acclaimed author of 11 books and collections of short stories.
Meta Wood read her story about growing up with a mother and a stepmother, who both died too young. It was a story about walking two blocks to school; about climbing the magnolia tree in her backyard; about fishing with no bait; and about being young and looking death in the face.
“This is not a sad story,” Wood said at the conclusion. “This is to say how fortunate I was to have two mothers to love.”
Anne Smith read Ruth Reed’s story that featured a unique narrative. The story was told by the bridal dress. In 1953, Reed, her mother and sister were shopping in Raleigh for one wedding dress for two brides to be married a month apart.
“This dress started a tradition that would last through seven brides over 42 years,” the dress said. “The brides came in so many different sizes, some tall and some not, some thin and some not so thin.
“There were seven happy marriages and no divorces,” the dress continued. “Maybe I do have a bit of magic in me.”
Smith, who demonstrated that the group has story-telling talents well beyond the written word, read her story called “The Siblings.” Her brother was born just after her, and they would share a bedroom and many fights.
“He was born on Dec. 1, 1941, and I still tell him he was the reason the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor,” Smith said. “It was pick, pick, pick.”
Susan Cox read a story about her college days and about introducing underclassmen to the art of cow tipping. It was easy, they lied, just slip up on a sleeping cow and over she goes.
Things went bad in the cow pasture, and the sheriff became involved. Regardless, it was one of those days that is never forgotten.
Finley Reed, who taught and coached baseball in Lumberton for many years, wrote about a time before air conditioning, when neighbors shared chilled watermelons on front porches.
“The greatest sound ever was the sound of the school bell on the last day of school,” Reed wrote. “I stayed outside from morning ‘til nightfall.”
‘My favorite thing was fishing, and at that age, the important thing was catching fish,” he wrote. “In old age, the important thing is just going fishing.”
Anne and Stan Smith read the Reeds’ stories because Finley was taken to the hospital that morning. Stan read his own work about holiday traditions over the years.
In a piece called “Decorating the Christmas Tree,” Smith said, “I was taught by my mother how to properly decorate a Christmas tree.”
In a time before artificial trees and tiny white lights, the Smith’s tree always had icicles, laboriously put on “one at a time,” and homemade decorations, crafted by his mother.
“I hesitate to tell this story in mixed company,” Smith said. “My mother used the cases that condoms came in for decorations. She glued stars on them, and my father drilled a hole in the case and on the tree it went. I still have one of those.”
A “legacy tree” with family ornaments made “Christmas go down and one of the best times of the year,” Smith said.
Helen Sharpe said one of her mother’s legacies was expert needlework. Sharpe said her legacy was a collection of poems and newspaper columns that was published in book form.
One of the stories was about a paddle down the Lumber River that commemorated her 25th wedding anniversary with husband Jack, who is the former editor of The Robesonian.
“We thought a trip down the Lumber River was just the right way to celebrate,” Sharpe said.
Betty Floyd read a story about her cat, DJ, but thanked McCorkle before beginning.
“I’ve been in this class for three years, and I have enjoyed it as much as anything I’ve done,” she said.
“DJ came to live with us in 1975, and was just a tiny ball of black and white fur,” Floyd said. “Before that the only pets we had were fish.
“We never dreamed that one day DJ would save our lives.”
That was the day DJ pounced on Floyd’s daughter Carol to alert her the house was on fire.
“I was the one who said she would never let a pet on the table on in the bed,” Floyd said. “Be careful what you say.
“Guess what I asked for Christmas this year,” she said, producing a black-and-white plush toy cat.
Norma Johnson wrote about growing up in a very family and sleeping on a bed with so many quilts she could hardly turn over. There were biscuits with ham, hog killings and typhoid shots given at church.
“When I think of spring, I think of youth and spring cleaning,” Johnson said. “How I hated that day.”
Johnson recalled swimming at Princess Ann, where she was also baptized.
“They were good old days,” she said.
Speaking for the class, Meta Wood thanked McCorkle.
“Jill has given us the best gift possible, her time and talent,” Wood said. “She encouraged us to be creative with our writing.”
McCorkle, who has taught creative writing at Harvard, Duke, UNC and N.C. State, reflected on the experience of teaching the residents at Wesley Pines.
“I’ve taught creative writing for over 30 years,” McCorkle said. “It requires a level of trust and respect. Here, we laugh some days, and we cry some days.”
For McCorkle, teaching this group is both personal and a payback of sorts. McCorkle’s mother is a resident at Wesley Pines and so is the high school teacher who influenced her literary career.
“One of my earliest inspirations to write came from being in Ruth Reed’s lively and energetic literature class,” he said. “That’s the first time I realized that some of the great writers were not dead.”
McCorkle said the writing program is more than a workshop.
“This group has become so important to all of us,” she said. “It’s also a chance to really connect and talk about what’s most important in our lives— past and present.
“They are writing wonderful things. We also have regular attendees who just come to listen and take great pleasure in doing so.”
Staff writer Scott Bigelow can be reached at 910-644-4497 of [email protected]